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What Should Pop Culture Reporting Look Like?

Conor Friedersdorf wrote an excellent article for The Atlantic last week, criticizing Fox News for its ample coverage of Kim Kardashian. He flags one of their most recent articles, which sneered at Kardashian for her nude photo shoot and its inappropriateness. “I don’t have any urgent objection to clickbait articles that capitalize on the desire of the masses to see a photo of Kardashian’s butt,” he writes. “What’s less forgivable, to me, is pretending to disapprove of the Kardashian photo in order to profit from it via traffic, even while snarkily belittling the subject’s body.” He continues,

When can a media organization never again complain that anyone else is coarsening the culture? When its Kardashian coverage in the last month alone includes:

That is what it looks like to fail cultural conservatives.

This is a sad indication of the decline of cultural reporting in our culture—not merely because a news venue such as Fox would publish all these stories, but also because they are obviously in demand. Friedersdorf is right that these stories are ridiculously salacious clickbait. But does this mean we shouldn’t write about pop culture topics at all?

There is a difference between gossipy reporting, and thoughtful commentary. And one of the best ways to combat sorry pop culture reporting is to provide good commentary, whenever possible. Rod Dreher does a good job examining cultural trends, and providing thoughtful analysis. The Atlantic‘s entertainment and pop culture coverage is usually thoughtful, interesting, and tactful. The New Yorker and Slate often offer excellent film reviews. These sites and people cover important, interesting topics, because they know pop culture is important:  it affects the way everyday people think about virtues, values, and mores.

Writers also need to consider this: every story adds (or pulls against) the information tide—so how are we going to encourage a holistic, thoughtful ebb and flow? A hastily-written piece about Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian will instantly enter the flood, and it can push commentary in a good or bad direction. We have to consider how to encourage a serious and thoughtful flow of information.

This applies to readers as well—but sadly, it’s much harder to follow through on this part of the equation. All of us get ensnared by those catchy headlines, those teasing “READ MORE” excerpts. It’s hard not to be fascinated and ensnared by the constant gossipy stream released by the media; even if you have no interest in ever looking at Kim Kardashian’s derriére, after seeing it referenced 20 times in a given hour, you may feel inclined to just see what the fuss is all about. And it’s much easier to read celebrity gossip than it is to dive into an 8,000-word book review.

But the more we ignore meaningful, important stories, the less support and attention they’ll receive. And ultimately, we’ll regret it in the long run. Reading an LAROB review—even one about The Fault in Our Stars—is infinitely superior to reading Fox New’s latest diatribe about the Kardashians.

We, as writers and readers, ought to pass along, applaud, and read the gems in our societal discourse: the stories that are worthy of more than passing attention. As Friedersdorf points out, it’s not enough to sneer and make snide comments about these paltry gossipy stories. Our very attention encourages the immature fixation.

We need to talk about pop culture. It’s an integral part of our society, and deserves a reasoned amount of thoughtful coverage from the media. But what the Kardashian story—and the Reddit photo leak before that, and the Miley Cyrus craziness last year—shows us, is that we as a society become way too obsessed with mindless stories. Only a concerted effort can change that.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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